Advocacy and Affirmation

The world around us lurches from crisis to crisis, which is a condition many family caregivers would call “the usual.”

We find ourselves doing a bit of advocacy for our son, Joey. I need to stay away from TMI out of respect for his housemates, staff and service agency. Long story short, the long quarantine without their day programs and social visits is creating anxiety among the residents. One of them is having meltdowns, and our son is sometimes a target of these.

The staff floated some solutions, including moving Joey to a different room to allow greater staff control of the situation. We (Melissa and me, mom & dad, GUARDIANS) looked at each other and were in immediate agreement that this would only increase Joey’s anxiety and, in plain talk, wouldn’t be fair.

So we’ve dug in our heels and are arguing for other solutions. It’s not pleasant. We know that the housemate who is melting down is NOT a bully, but a person unable to process and express his frustration in more socially appropriate ways.

It’s weird to be in this place again. We thought that we were done with advocacy stuff once Joey was out of the school system. And, to be honest, we’re a bit spoiled as our experience of his service agency has been overwhelmingly positive.

But, as we said in our letter, We do not want Joey to have to leave his current room downstairs.  We are confident that this view is an accurate reflection of Joey’s desire. That is, even with great people caring for him, we know him best. We are still his parents by blood (and sweat and tears) and his guardians by law. So advocate we will.

The title of this piece mentions affirmation, and there’s been some sweet stuff on that front. During the quarantine, we’ve been making and delivering dinner to the group home every Friday. Here’s a big pan of spaghetti and meatballs, plus some sides, on the way last Friday.

The house staff put together a thank you, to which all of the residents affixed their signature or mark:

Gestures like this are solid gold. Care giving can feel fruitless and thankless, and this bit of affirmation lifted our spirits. And they topped it with a special card from Joey recognizing our 30th wedding anniversary:

Joey’s not that lyrical or loquacious, so we know the staff put some heart into the message. But that’s a real live Joey signature endorsing it, and no doubt he affixed the stickers.

Affirmation sneaks up sometimes. I’m a daily Bible reader. We all need sources of inspiration and encouragement, and as a Christian I find mine there. But it doesn’t always tell me just what I want to hear – many days I read right into a discovery of my worst self in action and that hurts. However…

…in the days just before delivering that spaghetti dinner to the group home, my reading schedule took me to Ecclesiastes 11:1-2,

Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,
for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.

That is, what you give away comes back to you in some way, and those who care for the needs of others are under God’s care in the crises that come again and again. I really perked up at “a portion for eight,” since that’s our planning number for the Friday dinners.

I also bumped into Jesus’ words in Luke 14:13-14,

But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.

It hit me as an affirmation and made me misty eyed. We started doing these Friday dinners just as a way to stay connected. Our motive was not all generosity – we wanted an excuse to at least see and wave to Joey. Yet in Jesus’ words I recognized that care giving, by its nature, can make us the hands and feet of the divine Lord, doing the things that please God as we serve others for Him, not for what we can get out of it.

For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just... caregivers know that the rewards are not always here and now; if we expected that, we would go mad. Heck, many of us are already about half past crazy. But it is a profound affirmation to hear that the Creator of all things notices us and can make a glorious future for us, whatever crises, failures and let downs we lurch through here and now.

“But We Had Hoped…”

Hope you’re all well. Hope you are getting gorgeous spring weather like we are here in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where our lad Henry the Golden Retriever enjoyed a long Sunday stroll.

I attended church online Sunday morning and the message was on my mind as I walked the dog. In last Sunday’s Bible lesson there’s a back and forth between Jesus and two of his followers who think he’s dead and gone. It includes

“…our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel…” And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 

The preacher pointed out the gap between the expectations laid on Jesus by the two followers – we had hoped – and the reality defined by Jesus – was it not necessary?

Are you feeling frustration as a caregiver (or in just about any other life role)? It is likely that you’re in that gap between the expectations you’ve laid on reality and reality itself.

One of the big and obvious expectations is that your sincere efforts and good intentions should provide wonderful outcomes. Those in your care should be happy, progressing in life skills and enjoyments and thankful as all get out for your labors.

In contrast, the reality may leave you gasping But we had hoped.

We do a formidable job of laying our expectations on God or the universe or whatever greater reality we posit. And we certainly lay them on those around us.

The cosmic reply is Was it not necessary that…?

We had hoped that those in our care would fall in line with our well devised plans. Was it not necessary that they should find their own hopes, dreams, pleasures and directions – even their own blunders – apart from ours?

We had hoped that taking care of others would be enough and that some of life’s other demands would pass us by. Was it not necessary that the fullness of life, pleasant and painful, be our lot, connecting us with all other human beings?

We had hoped that bending our lives to the needs of others would make us into valued and happy people. Was it not necessary that we find our value and joy as unique people instead of as reactive extensions of others, dependent on their moods for our validation?

We had hoped that a big, dependable world of institutions would take care of us. Was it not necessary to see that all the institutions are fragile and flawed and that we, with all of our personal limitations, remain the first and best resource to those in our care?

I think one of the opportunities within the shutdowns and quarantines is the time and space to tumble into the gap between our expectations and reality, and to start climbing back up the slope toward the reality side. It can be exhausting and leave us with a good share of scrapes and bruises, but, like Jesus told those two guys, it is necessary if we’re to find a glorious outcome.

Workplace impact of care giving

Good quick read at ThinkAdvisor.  It won’t surprise you if you’re a caregiver. But I hope it reaches you before you get to the point at which I found myself a few years ago.

…approximately 68% of working parental and spousal caregivers said they were subject to at least one of eight different effects on their jobs because of providing care to a loved one.

There is a link to the full Government Accountability Office report, which includes this graph of the eight workplace effects,

Caregiving workplace impact GAO

Raising our son with autism piled up stress over the years, and in a job which required intense people work and difficult decisions, I began to falter.  I suffered a number of these effects,

  • Care giving situations made me come in late, leave early or miss work altogether on a regular basis.
  • “Leave of absence” and “left work entirely” merged in a catastrophic case of burnout.  The 24/7 stress of workplace and care giving demands led to poor decision making and lack of energy at work, eventually diagnosed as depression and off the charts anxiety.
  • Although I received some kind help that got us through and got me back into the workforce, the financial fallout is still with us.

My advice from hindsight is to trust your instincts.  Don’t try to “fake” or “tough” your way through when you sense you’re in trouble.

When you know that “this isn’t working,” initiate adjustments.  Talk to your employer about the situation – a change of shift, department, location or even position within the organization might be helpful.  Reduced travel time, better synchronization with family schedules and other time impacts might be available.

Begin to crunch numbers and, if you’re married, get into a substantive discussion with your spouse.  I was so ashamed of what I was feeling that I tried to “handle it” myself – working as a couple might have generated solutions that I missed.  What changes of income are needed?  If more, what can your situation tolerate in terms of more hours or travel?  If income must come down, what can be cut out of current spending to accommodate the change?  What options, if any, does your spouse have on the money front?

Don’t make major decisions in the midst of emotional upheaval and don’t make them alone.

Value and stand up for your insights when you know you’re right.  Caregivers get used to being flexible and not insisting on our way in order to roll with the needs of others.  But sometimes we need to draw lines and make decisions for the family good.  It’s too easy to back down and do what we think will keep things “calm.”  All we do is create a ticking time bomb emotionally, financially, in relationally and, if working, professionally.

Yes, follow the constant advice to “take care of yourself.”  I know, I know… I heard and ignored it too.  Eat right, get sleep, exercise and nurture your mind and spirit.  Seek God’s presence – but watch out for magical thinking.  You know, “If I pray hard enough or make enough sacrifices, God will fix this.”  God will help you to endure and will guide you, but the “fixes” will often involve uncomfortable commitments and actions.  Make the right choices, guided by the moral teaching you claim to follow, rather than making compromises that temporarily ease your stress.

It’s never been the position of this blog to lecture you from a point of expertise.  So I hope that sharing my profound failures is a useful way to reach out and help.  Please take good care of yourself – those in your care need you to be you.

woulda shoulda coulda

I’m coming off a very sweet weekend in which Melissa and I marked 29 years of marriage (the large part of it as caregivers) and many kind people graced my retirement from church leadership.

It is one of those forks in the road where I guess I’m supposed to type memoir-like thoughts.  But I’m not.  The fork is not confusing and I don’t need to linger; I know where I’m heading next, at least in the short term.

I’ll be working at a local hospital in a specific kind of work, sterilizing medical implements.  It won’t be the kind of people-work that rides on one’s back all the way home and then sprawls all over one’s family and personal life.

I’m glad for it.  I applied for some other, more lucrative public service positions, but those didn’t come through – and in short hindsight I think that’s a blessing.  I couldn’t have given the emotional quality of work they needed.

The decades of family care giving simultaneous with the emotional demands of church leadership took a toll.  There were various highs and lows, but I’m not going back over them with a lot of “woulda shoulda coulda” self-absorption.  They were what they were.  I lifted a lot of people up and I let a lot of people down.  Such is human life.

20190528_080723Looking at myself honestly in the here and now, I can say that I have a good number of emotional punctures.  Not enough to incapacitate me or require major repair, but enough to know I need to keep things as simple as I can.  I’m like a garden hose with some nicks – sure, it’s not perfect, but it’s not time to throw it away.  It gets most of the water where it needs to flow.  A spot of duct tape and all’s well.

Care giving takes a toll.  I say that without shame.  It’s diminished me in some ways.

And I know it’s improved and enriched me as well.

If you are a caregiver in the trenches, you’re not crazy and, most of all, not a bad person (more than any other ) when you feel your nicks and leaks.   Care giving is costly.  As is anything ultimately worthwhile,

…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.  (Acts 14:22)

The weekend’s getting long

Holidays are seldom restful for caregivers.  Supports like schools and community centers are closed, the ones in our care can be upset by disrupted routines, and our instinctive savoring of “time off” crashes into extra hours of greater demand.

The need to pace ourselves and embrace our reality is acute.  Family care giving is not contained between punches of a workplace clock and seldom gives the satisfaction of “done.”

Memorial Day provides a long weekend.

The long Memorial Day weekend honors those who died in combat.  As one hears at funerals, they rest from their labors.

The long weekend indulges the living who have the freedom to travel, party or just be couch potatoes for a bit.

For family caregivers, it’s just long.

If you have a care giving family on your block, they might not be able to come to the park or even the party in the next yard.

But you might knock on the door just the same to drop off a plate of barbecued goodness and with your kindness make the weekend a little less long on their end.

 

“To The Other Mother”

Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well.  (Romans 16:13)

Joey 21 McNally

Mother’s Day is here  – let’s show some love for all the moms!  I want to honor Melissa, not only for giving birth to our two sons, but for the long term momming that went into raising a son with special needs to adulthood.  (re: the picture – no, he doesn’t drink.  It was just a milestone to celebrate his 21st birthday in a place that required him to reach 21.  Strictly a burger run).

I know from years of church experience that piling on the Mother’s Day sentiment can have unintended consequences.  Women who are not birth moms, or who can’t be, or who lost a child, or who are estranged from their kids might perceive a “second class female” label being slapped on them when church services set aside the Gospel and function more like a Hallmark holiday.

I don’t think that means we should eliminate Mothers Day but we should be aware of its limits.  Giving birth is not the only value to a woman’s existence and, frankly, there’s more to being a mom than giving birth and having a baby shower. We need to watch out for romanticizing and minimizing what should be serious, sacrificial and lifelong effort.  (Motherhood in this fullest sense is quite Christ-like).

The full expression of motherhood involves care giving.  I’ve watched Melissa’s role continually evolve as our boys age.  She’s always their care giver, even as they grow in adult independence.  She continues to be a source of “home” for them, even across distance.

I quoted Saint Paul at the top of these thoughts.  In an easy-to-skip ending to one of his letters, where he’s writing a lot of “Say ‘Hi’ to so-and-so” pleasantries, he mentions a fellow Christian named Rufus and then asks his readers to greet Rufus’ unnamed mother, who, Paul writes, has been a mother to me as well. 

What form this took we don’t know.  We know that Paul’s ministry kept him on the road; perhaps Rufus’ mom gave the Apostle a sense of home base and family when he visited Rome.  Paul mentions ailments in some of his letters; perhaps Rufus’ mom gave him respite and comfort.  And Paul’s life was full of hardships and hostile confrontations; perhaps the mothering he received from this unnamed woman was in simple hospitality, human warmth and affirming words when they crossed paths.  In a world that beat Paul physically and emotionally, this lady’s glad hug and smiling “Welcome back, stranger!” would have been the medicine of motherly love (I remember the days when our kids seemed to get better from bugs by just sitting on Melissa’s lap for a bit.)

In her book Teaching Diamonds in the Tough, Cleo Lampos includes a chapter entitled To The Other Mother.  She lauds those who step in to give care in ways that make them mothers to the world’s needy children of all ages,

DiamondsIn our family, my Aunt Lois served as our unofficial foster care system.  At one time or another, Aunt Lois took care of most of my cousins for varying lengths of time and for differing reasons.  Her frame house in mid-Iowa became a refuge for my sister and me for over a year as my mother battled with an alcoholic husband in another state.  Aunt Lois provided stability and protection at a time when my sister and I displayed emotional signs from abuse.  She infused us with hope because we had lost ours.  Aunt Lois became “our other mother.” 

To women like… Aunt Lois, a lot of adults owe debts of gratitude that can never be paid.  The “other mother” saved our lives.

So I take this Mother’s Day on the calendar to give thanks for all of the mothers on the job out there; those like Melissa who gave birth and continue to nurture those lives decades later,  and to all the “other mothers” who give care and bring forth new life when others have the blues…

 

 

Annuals

Our publisher’s site has another excerpt from our book up for ya.  It posted with some typos (since corrected) which was kinda funny because it is an excerpt about things getting out of our control…

Flowers Olde RectoryHere in South Dakota, the weather extremes must be navigated. If you plant before spring locks in, a frost can occur, and the annuals are history. In the midst of a broiling summer, a thunderstorm can sweep in and dump inches of water. You have mud puddles where your planting once shined. The blazing sun in the bright blue sky, like the pattern for our state flag, fries fragile flowers. The result is that we’re on hiatus from planting flowers here.

Joey’s autism does yeoman work of blowing up my fantasy of predictable order. Just when something seems to work, it breaks down. For example, Joey loved the water. One of my first memories of him appearing “normal” in public was at a beach where he ran out to the water and let the waves chase him back, all the while laughing just like the other little kids. But it wasn’t just the ocean. Any water made caring for Joey easier. Then he stopped liking water.

Give it a read.  Hope it is helpful if you’re in the midst of a “things are getting away from me” mood.  They are, of course, getting away from you.  But you’re OK.  No, not FEELING OK.  You’re OK because you are, against all the evidence, the very best resource that the universe sends to those in your care.

Maybe Next Year

Growing up in L.A., I was a fan of the Los Angeles Angels when they were a brand-new American League expansion team. When I was a kid, they played in the stadium named for the “real” team: the Dodgers.

But in my childhood, they were a “maybe next year” team. Maybe next year they would win more games than they lost. Maybe next year they would climb up from the bottom of the standings.

We have a “maybe next year” tree by the street in front of our house. We needed a tree out there to block some of the summer sun that routinely fried our lawn. We also craved fall color, so when a landscaper showed us pictures of a maple called a “Fall Fiesta,” we said, “Wow, look at all those fiery leaves! Put one in right now!” So he did. And all the budding leaves fell off, and the tree went dormant. We looked at our bare little tree all winter, praying that dormant was something different from dead. The tree budded in the spring. Of course, it hardly cast any shade, little thing that it was.

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The tree done good!

The next year was better. There was noticeable fresh growth on top. It grew taller. Its leaves seemed fuller. It didn’t shield the lawn from the sun, but it cast a respectable shadow where the dog liked to pee on hot days. There were some deep red leaves in the mix for autumn. Each year adds.

Like waiting on a plant to bloom, taking care of an autistic person requires patient hope. Your heart, and maybe your mind, will break if you are into precise timelines. “Next September our kids will achieve ‘X’” must be held loosely. “X” might happen in October, or November, or the following spring, or September two years out, or not for a very long time.

Like hopelessly loyal sports fans or amateur gardeners, caregivers have to keep telling themselves, “Maybe next year.” And in the next year, or tomorrow, or a few seconds from now, a once-abandoned hope arrives as a surprise.

Gardeners like ourselves must learn and relearn “deferred gratification.” We might want to stick a stalk in the ground and see a tree the next day, and we want to think that one or two sit-downs with an exercise book will have our kid reading literature in time for kindergarten.

But when it comes to caring for someone with special needs, it is important to hold a goal patiently. If it is a good goal, it is worth holding onto in heart, mind, and habits over many seasons.

Like travelers using the four cardinal directions on a map, people who follow Jesus find spiritual orientation from three cardinal virtues: “faith, hope and love” (1 Corinthians 13:13 NIV). Hope keeps us looking to the horizon, to what’s next. We hope for what we do not see or have, but believe what can be out there. Hope allows us to act with purpose, believing that our efforts are worthwhile and taking us toward a good destination. It means long seasons of waiting, of doing the right stuff over and over even when a desired result isn’t coming into view.

When we come to terms with hope, we find that it isn’t really about a particular event, thing, or outcome, but it’s about coming face-to-face with the one who is calling us forward.

Edited and shared by the publisher, from my book.

Holidays and Expectations

Ah, the holidays.  Happy memories of childhood magic float into our thinking, only to crash upon rocks of present reality.

This can be acute for caregivers.  We want to enjoy the season; we want to make magic for those in our care.

48362608_10217973652521354_2826689720354865152_oWe’ve been fortunate.  Our son with autism loves Christmas.  I’ll just share this picture-worth-a-thousand-words…

But he’s also done numbers on our memories and expectations (and property and bodies) over the years.  As I wrote in Raising a Child With Autism,

Joey has taught us a lot about saying goodbye to things we valued and enjoyed. We had a set of stoneware mugs from the bed-and-breakfast where we honeymooned. He threw one and shattered it. We kept a little mesh bag of Jordan almonds from a place setting at our wedding reception. He ate them.

The smiley kid by the Christmas tree?  You mean that happy child?

As I went on to write in the same chapter of the book,

Taking care of one off-the-wall, scary child of God means that a bunch of our nice stuff will get trashed. We can go down with our things and drown in a lake of resentment. Or we can find the love in our hearts that makes the well-being of that one person worth all the losses. More than this, if we open our eyes of faith, we can see God’s love for us.

Prayers that your holiday – holy day – catches even a bit of the holy.  A little goes a long way.  Little town of Bethlehem, a baby in a manger, from what seems small comes divine blessing.

Little you in your little part of the universe – you are a blessing to those in your care.

Changes

We went to our son’s annual Individual Service Plan (ISP) meeting last week, the first since he moved into a group home.  What the staff said made our hearts glow,

It’s been one of the best transitions we’ve ever seen.  It was hard to think up things for the agenda.

It’s really been that good.  He’s taken to the new arrangement and is healthy and happy.

Here on the empty nest home front, we went for some changes of our own.  When we started this blog we put up our masthead picture of the backyard dog run.  It was built by the previous owners.  Our dog never took to it, whined and barked enough to bug the neighbors and became an inside pet.

Anyway, the old picture captured the increasingly weedy and decrepit dog run with a neighbor’s well groomed yard just over the fence.  It evoked that care giving feeling that says, We’re all messed up while the world just beyond is going fine.

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The old dog run got more and more weedy, run down, rabbit and who-knows-what-else infested over the years.  We decided it was time for it to go.

 

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In came a dumpster and out came a friend with sledgehammers and a power saw and assorted other demolitiony goodness.

 

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And, voila, our yard is nice and orderly like the rest of the world.  Guess we’re not caregivers no mo’.

Of course this blog has sounded off before about how we are dealing with all kinds of deferred maintenance on ourselves as individuals and as a couple.

There are good PTSD sites out there and this won’t try to do what is already being done better.  It is enough to say that the fallout from care giving sticks around long after the work is done.

But doesn’t the yard look nice?